Pat Roberts, who is retiring from the U.S. Senate, has a long history of service to the nation, and to Kansas. You can read all about that elsewhere. The Mercury has already published a good story on that subject. We have covered Sen. Roberts for many years in one way or another.
But it’s his connections specifically to Manhattan that I’d like to reflect on for the moment. He’s probably been the most effective advocate for the interests of this community that I can remember. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, a quick story.
Pat Roberts was born in Topeka and graduated from high school in Holton. He claims Dodge City as his Kansas residence, which is another story, but I would say Manhattan is really his spiritual home.
That’s because he’s a K-Stater at heart; he graduated in 1958 with a degree in journalism.
Tangent: Sen. Roberts likes to tell the story of how he completed the work for his degree. There was a requirement at the time to have a certain number of column-inches of copy published in a real newspaper, and evidently he was behind and short on time. So he came down here to the office of The Mercury and pleaded for some assignments from Bill Colvin, the new editor at the paper at that time.
Colvin assigned him to cover high school graduation ceremonies; Roberts wrote accounts along these lines: “The speaker was So-and-So. The graduates were…..” and then he typed up all the names. Filled up those column-inches quick. So he always gave The Mercury some of the credit for his degree.
Funny story. No idea if it’s entirely true, but I’ve never questioned it because I want it to be. Too good to check, as they say. Gotta say, his background as a reporter — and a reporter here, for that matter — always made me feel a connection.
More substantially, Sen. Roberts is a tried-and-true K-Stater; you could count on seeing him at football games, year after year, knowing the intricacies of the matchup and the tendencies. “Throw it to the tight end!” he would grumble, or even yell. Bill Snyder himself joked from time to time about this.
Sen. Roberts led the cheers at bowl-game pep rallies as the featured speaker. “Elvis is alive, he’s in the building, and he’s wearing purple,” he said, noting the size of the throng in Dallas for the first Cotton Bowl.
But as I said at the outset, he was instrumental in very important matters. As you know, Manhattan is two things, if nothing else: It’s a college town, and it’s an Army town.
Sen. Roberts was crucial in positioning Fort Riley for growth after the turn of this century. The fort had been cut substantially in a round of base closings in the 1990s, including the removal of the First Infantry Division flag. That’s the Big Red One, a symbol we bear with great pride around here.
When the Army post cut back, Manhattan shrank in population. We had to close schools. We were worried that they might eventually completely eliminate Fort Riley. Did the modern Army really need all that land for tanks? Wasn’t that an outdated form of warfare? Yadda yadda yadda.
Well, there was an enormous effort to turn that around, with Sen. Roberts in a key leadership position in the Senate. I’ll never forget when he called me at the office in 2006 to say the Big Red One was coming home.
Just like that, Manhattan was a growing community again. Has been ever since.
On the K-State front, Sen. Roberts played a crucial leadership role in the effort to start the National Bio- And Agro-Defense Facility, and in the decision to put it here in Manhattan. One key element of that was the existence of a biosafety lab here already; that facility is aptly now named Pat Roberts Hall.
NBAF will be a major pillar in the local economy, also positioning K-State as a key leader in food and agricultural safety for decades to come.
Sen. Roberts might be leaving public service, but his legacy will be felt here for a long, long time. Today, I’d like to salute him, and thank him for what he’s done.
Also, Senator, if you still need to fill up some column-inches, I might have an assignment...